Happy New Year! Some of you know that this is the final Sunday of the church calendar year. The church year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, so this is the last Sunday of the church year.
And what do we do at the end of one year and the beginning of the next? We make New Year’s resolutions and New Years projections and plans for the new year. Likewise, at the beginning of the church year, we do just that. This is pledge Sunday, so we fill out our pledge cards, so that the Finance Ministry and Spiritual Leadership Team can plan our budget and ministries and goals for the next year. First off, let me give a shout-out to Bill Stauffer and the Finance Ministry and John Pauls and the SLT, who every year have some hard conversations and some hard decisions to make. And this year is no exception.
In fact, those conversations and decisions are likely to be harder this year. We never can predict the future, but this year is harder than others in predicting what the next 12-14 months is going to look like. We have new national leadership, new state-wide leadership, even new county and relatively new city leadership. As we as a church discuss over the next month or so what our budget will be for 2017, we know that some of these larger contexts will impact ours as well.
Not only that, but the larger context of the Church in America is in a place of uncertainty. The Church faces institutional challenges that we haven’t had to face in a while, including lower participation, lower attendance, and lower giving patterns. I know in talking with other pastors locally and elsewhere that a lot of churches are really concerned about finances this year. Many are worse off than we are, but we have our challenges, as well. Actually, this is the point in the sermon where the Finance Ministry would This is the point in the sermon when the Finance Ministry would like me to remind you that if you are behind on your 2016 pledges as well here at First Baptist.
For even in our own church, uncertainty still looms, does it not?
Of course, it is not the first new year that the Church has faced uncertainty.
The book of Colossians is written by Paul to the Christians in the Lycus River Valley, in Asia Minor. Theirs was a life of physical uncertainty. This area of the world is known for their earthquakes and volcanic activity. The Lycus River Christians would have lived their life unsure of the next time that their world could shake apart.
But there was also relational uncertainty. Paul did not actually start the church in Colossae, but his disciple Epaphras did, making Paul like the spiritual grandfather of the church. But Paul writes the letter from prison, something that the Colossians had probably learned. Already, there is a sense of uncertainty in the letter, as the hearers must wonder what will happen to their mentor and hero.
Finally, there was also ideological uncertainty. The future of the church is in the air, as Paul writes, for they are beginning to follow a dangerous ideology. Scholars are unsure what it is that this ideology is. It might be the cultural influences of the Romans. It might be the false perfectionism of those who would teach that one must follow strict religious of laws before they can become Christian. It might be a political ideology of what Paul calls the “dominions and rulers and powers” – the political party of the day.
But whatever it is – even all of the above – Paul makes it clear that it is not the Gospel. These ideologues would seek to incorporate Jesus into their ideological structure. Make Jesus one of their many cultural heroes – the latest idol of the day. Make Jesus the poster boy for their religious perfectionism. Make Jesus the exemplar of their political beliefs. Paul was concerned because he knew that subjugating Jesus into one of these other ideological forces would neuter his message and his identity. He would simply be a mascot for some other false doctrine.
So, in a world of uncertainty, Paul talks about Jesus. But it is the way that he talks about Jesus that is important. In Colossians, Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is the Messiah. God Incarnate. The firstborn of creation. The image of the invisible God. The fullness of God on earth. In other words, Jesus will not be subjugated into some cultural ideology, or set of perfectionistic laws, or a political party. He is above and beyond. He is the original thought. The original idea.
Which is why throughout the book, Paul talks about Jesus with the language of wisdom. A little background here is helpful. The concept of wisdom is more complex than we might first think. He is not only saying that Jesus is wise. He is tapping into an ancient Wisdom Tradition in which Wisdom is personified as the firstborn of Creation. Now, Paul calls Jesus the firstborn of creation, in essence equating this Wisdom Tradition with the personhood of Christ. Wisdom has existed from the beginning with God, so, when Paul associates Wisdom with Jesus, he is trying to say that Jesus has been present with God from the beginning, and is the fullness of God with us.
By the way, I think that that’s what is going on with our theme hymn, Be Thou My Vision. The title for today is “Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word.” Both of these theological conceptions: Wisdom and Word – or Logos – are ways that the New Testament writers talk about Christ as eternally present with God. Remember John 1? “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” So when the author of Be Thou My Vision says “Be Thou my wisdom and Thou my true word,” she is probably referring to these two great theological constructs: Wisdom and Word. They are both ways to describe the presence of the eternal God in our daily lives.
And so Paul here is making the point, first and foremost that Jesus is Sovereign. All this background points to the fact that Paul is using this Wisdom tradition to name Christ as more than just a wise teacher. Christ is sovereign as our eternal king. In other words, in the context of so much uncertainty, Paul is telling the Colossians, don’t place your ultimate trust in cultural forces, or religious perfectionism, or political ideology. Don’t even place your ultimate trust me, he says. Don’t put your ultimate trust in the mentorship of your spiritual grandfather Paul, who is human and able to be tossed into prison…or worse. Instead, trust in Christ the King.
In short, Paul tells the Colossians, in the face of uncertainty, trust in Christ’s sovereignty.
So, what does this mean for us? This passage is today’s lectionary passage because we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday. This Sunday, in particular, we talk about the sovereignty of Christ. How Christ is King of our hearts? Just like with the false ideologies of the Colossians, this message is so relevant today, isn’t it? How many of us would subjugate Jesus into our cultural priorities? Or our religious perfectionism? Or our political party? This is so important to remember, after a divisive election season when a lot of would-be officials have told us why they should lead us. Let us remember who our true leader is. Who our true sovereign is. Who we should worship above and beyond the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers of this world!
Elizabeth Barrington Forney suggests that this passage causes us to ask a crucial question of the things in our life: “Does this allow Christ to have first place?” She uses Paul’s language here: “so that he might come to have first place in everything.” And asks can we really say that about everything in our lives? Let me get specific.
When that political conversation across the table at Thanksgiving turns heated, the question to ask is, “does this allow Christ to have first place?”
When we plunk down that credit card on Black Friday, the question to ask is, “does this allow Christ to have first place?”
When we are tempted to respond to another angry or goading post on social media, the question to ask is, “does this allow Christ to have first place?”
When we as a church sit down to determine our priorities and our vision and our budget and our mission, we must ask, “does this allow Christ to have first place?”
When we turn in our pledge cards in a few minutes, we each have to ask, “does this allow Christ to have first place?”
And that doesn’t mean that we cannot do or say or engage or spend in any of these ways. But when we do these things, we have to subjugate each of these decisions to the Lordship of Christ…not the other way around.
But it is hard. It is what we as Christians struggle with more than anything – how do we put Christ above the idols in our lives? So why bother? What’s the point. I think that Paul answers this, too.
Let me summarize first, and then explain. Paul says in the face of uncertainty, trust in Christ’s sovereignty, for only then will you be blessed with God’s magnanimity. (I know, it’s cheesy, but I bet you remember it when you are standing in line in Target on Friday!) In the face of uncertainty, trust in Christ’s sovereignty, in order to receive God’s magnanimity.
What do I mean by this? Magnanimity is about generosity, and abundance, and sacrificial giving, and compassion. Brene Brown talks about whole-heartedness, or having a sense of authentic and genuine d creative and resilient and freeing as we give of ourselves. I think that this is exactly what Paul is getting at in this passage in Colossians. Look again at the passage:
- “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.” Receive inner strength.
- “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father…” Receive gratitude, which gives you the ability to endure.
- “(Christ)…in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Receive redemption and forgiveness.
Why bother? Because it really is the better way to live! Receive the magnanimity of God, the whole-heartedness available from your connection to the eternal King.
In the face of uncertainty, trust in Christ’s sovereignty, in order to receive God’s magnanimity. I want this to be your mantra this week. At the thanksgiving table. Shopping this weekend. Wherever you are. In fact, here’s my challenge: when you are standing in line in Target on Friday, I want you to work that into the conversation with the clerk at Target. Unless it’s like 4:00 in the morning. That’s too many syllables for 4:00 in the morning. Here’s the 4:00 version:
Jesus is reliable.
Trust in him to live the fullest life possible.
It really is that simple. Paul was trying to impress upon the Colossians that trust in Christ’s reign really does make life more meaningful. It really does make us more whole-hearted, more magnanimous. And you don’t have to say it to anyone. But I want you to be it to everyone you meet. Because a lot of folks are struggling with uncertainty right now. And we can point to the Christ who is sovereign and above it all.
Thomas R. Kelly was born in Ohio in 1893. During World War I, he worked with the YMCA in England with prisoners of war. After what he saw there, he was profoundly changed and spoke against the horrors of war. He worked and worked against the evil that he saw, until he was finally told to go home by the military.
Upset and frustrated, he returned home and threw himself into the life of academia. For many this is life-giving and even Christ-honoring, but for Kelly, it was not a way to allow Christ to have first place. Instead, it was a way to satisfy his own perfectionism and unhealthy drive to succeed. It wasn’t until he had a mental breakdown trying to earn his second PhD that he finally gave up that drive. Because for Kelly, it was the struggle that caused him grief. Fighting for peace is a good thing. Academic work is a good thing. But for him, these things were tied to his unrelenting drive for perfection, a way to tell God what to do with his life, not the other way around.
So, in response to this breakdown, he decided to take a mental break. So, he went into Nazi Germany in order to care for and support his fellow Quakers there suffering under Hitler’s reign. A nice vacation, isn’t it?
But it was there, struggling, striving in the face of horrible death and evil, that he simply stopped trying to do it all himself. He finally let Christ reign in his heart. It was during this time in Germany when he felt God’s presence in a new and radical way. Hear now his words from an essay called The Light Within:
In this humanistic age we suppose (humanity) is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop. They become a holy sanctuary of adoration and of self-oblation, where we are kept in perfect peace, if our minds be stayed on Him who has found us in the inward springs of our life. And in brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyperaesthesia of the soul, we see all (human)kind tinged with deeper shadows, and touched with Galilean glories. Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to a new and overcoming love toward time-blinded (women and) men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. We are owned (women and) men, ready to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint.”
May we know — and proclaim — that Light within, as we share the power of Christ’s sovereignty in an uncertain world.